Smithsonian - National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Physical Sciences Collection - Surveying and Geodesy

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Surveyor's Vernier Compass - click to enlarge

Surveyor's Vernier Compass - click to enlarge

Click photos to enlarge.

Surveyor's Vernier Compass

Catalogue number:

"F. Heisely Fredk: town."

length 14 inches; needle 5.5 inches

Frederick Heisely (1759-1843) was a clock and compass maker of German descent who catered to the community of rich German American farmers in the mid-Atlantic region. He apprenticed with John G. Hoff, a clock maker born and trained in Germany, served in the Revolutionary War, married Hoff's eldest daughter, and opened a shop in Frederick (then called Fredericktown), Maryland, in the mid-1780s. He moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1811.

This compass has a variation arc on the south arm that extends 14 degrees to either side; the vernier is moved by hand, and reads to 6 minutes. The east-west level vial on the north arm and the north-south level vial on the south arm seem to be later additions. The bottom plate is not solid, as was usually the case, but has six large segments cut out, presumably to save brass and/or reduce the weight of the instrument. And the compass face reads clockwise- a feature that was probably introduced at the behest of the surveyor for whom the compass was made. Heisely also made compasses with the counterclockwise form, introduced by David Rittenhouse. The level vials on the north and south arms, the needle, and one of the sight vanes seem to be later additions.

Ref: Silvio A. Bedini, "Frederick Heisely: Clock and Compass Maker," Rittenhouse 3 (1989):120-124.

Further Information:

David Rittenhouse
Surveyor's Compass